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What Return Should An Emmanuel Clase Deal Fetch the Guardians?

If the Guardians trade their closer, whom should we expect them to get back?

Cleveland Guardians v. Minnesota Twins Photo by David Berding/MLB Photos via Getty Images

As you may have heard, Jeff Passan of ESPN reported that the Guardians are “open to the possibility of trading Emmanuel Clase.”

Now, of course, being open to something doesn’t mean it is likely to happen. The Guardians listen to offers for all their players. However, Jeff Passan doesn’t simply float rumors for clicks; he’s a more responsible reporter who is generally well-connected to the Cleveland front office, as he demonstrated by reporting Stephen Vogt as a strong candidate for the managerial job well-before his hiring and before any Guardians’ beat reporters. My reading, thus, is that the Guardians have likely had a back-and-forth with at least one team on the idea, whether or not something is anywhere close is certainly highly questionable (and unlikely).

I have noticed three general categories of reactions to the Emmanuel Clase rumor:

1. Emmanuel Clase is not that good and the Guardians’ should look to trade him as soon as possible.

2. Emmanuel Clase is a god and the Guardians’ being open to trading him is a sign of the impending apocalypse.

3. Emmanuel Clase is an elite reliever, but any professional baseball team should always be willing to trade a reliever, no matter how elite, for the right return.

Please, reader, I beg of you, migrate yourself into the third category. Emmanuel Clase experienced a decline in performance from 2022 to 2023, seeing his ERA climb from 1.36 to 3.22 and his strikeout-rate decline 9.54 to 7.93 and his walk-rate climb from 1.24 to 1.98, with his hard-hit rate also climbing by 5% to 37.6%. It is fair to have concerns about these events - for example, new Guardians’ reliever Scott Barlow ranked 30th among ML relievers with at least 20 innings with a 29.8% hard-hit rate; Clase’s rate ranked 168th in the same category. In strikeouts per 9 innings, Barlow ranked 84th and Clase ranked 236th.

What does Clase do well? He ranks 40th among these relief pitchers with a 55% ground ball rate, and ranked 66th among pitchers in homers given up per fly ball at 7.3%. He is, most importantly, 25 years old. From 2021-2022, he was 7th lowest among relievers throwing 50 or more innings in hard-hit rate at 21.8, 4th in groundball rate at 65.8%, first in ERA at 1.33, 13th in lowest walk rate (with a respectable 9.55 K/9) and 5th in most innings thrown (Barlow was 2nd, by the way).

Even in his “bad” season of 2023, according to Baseball Savant, Clase was 91st percentile in xERA, 88th percentile in barrel-rate, and 93rd percentile in groundball rate. In the past three years, Clase has thrown over 2,000 cutters averaging over 99mph, something no other pitcher in baseball has come close to in number or average speed. If we look at his year-to-year underlying metrics on Baseball Savant, the most glaring changes are a decline in strikeouts, in swing and miss, in chases outside the zone and in first-pitch strikes. For me, I wonder if some of that might be attributed to a chaotic year for Clase in terms of catchers. With a stable year of Bo and Christian Bethancourt and a SLEW of former catchers added to the coaching staff, I really like his chances to figure out a better pitch mix in Cleveland.

In summary, Emmanuel Clase is still an incredibly talented and dominant reliever and we should not conclude that his future will look more like 2023 than 2021-2022 or we would be guilty of recency bias and of ignoring that he’s only turning 26 years old in March. However, we should also be willing to admit that he has some work to do to correct issues he ran into last season, primarily in avoiding hard-hit balls and missing more bats. The right place to be is valuing Clase as a pitcher who is projected by Steamer for the 14th lowest ERA in 2023, while acknowledging that his 2021-2022 performance indicates he is capable of a lot more and his 2023 performance shows that, like all relievers, his performance is volatile and in constant need of tweaks to preserve dominance.

Clase is under team control through at least 2026, with club options for $10M in both 2027 and 2028. Clase will be paid $2.5M in 2024, $4.5M in 2025, and $6M in 2026. Obviously, this is insane value for the reliever Clase was in 2021-2022 and still very good value for the reliever he was in 2023. This contract is an immensely important aspect of his value as, if Clase would become more of 7th inning reliever, his contract isn’t burdensome to a team, and, if he remains an elite closer, the two club options are still a great value as compared to shopping for the same player in free agency. ZiPS projections leading into 2023 projected that “he has a good shot to be the best reliever of this generation” and all the tools that impress the computers are still there, despite some bumps in the road.

If the Guardians decide to trade Clase, I am of the firm belief that they need to bring back AT least a major league-quality bat for the middle of their order. In an age where velocity is king in the bullpen and the value of the starting pitcher continues to decline, Clase is an incredibly valuable piece given his past performance, age and contract. If the Guardians can’t land that kind of player, they should simply keep Clase.

Some names who would interest me (not saying I’d make the deal per se, just saying I’d be interested). Caveat: The deals might require more from the Guardians or more from the team acquiring Clase, I’m just focused on potential headliners below:

Randy Arozarena from Tampa Bay
Notes: No one loves to make deals together more than Cleveland and Tampa Bay (much to Guardians’ fans’ chagrin in the case of Junior Caminero). I don’t think the Rays are an ideal fit for Clase because they seem to find dominant relievers under every rock, but it would be interesting to see them maximize a player like Clase (only to have his arm fall off 18 months down the road).

Jordan Walker or Lars Nootbaar from St. Louis
Notes: This is actually my ideal fit and I’d try to expand the deal by asking for Michael McGreevy or Gordon Graceffo, also. But, it’s a lot to ask from both teams; St. Louis giving up young, middle of the order hitters and Cleveland giving up an elite closer.

MAYBE Christopher Morel AND Ben Brown, MLB Top 100 Starting Pitcher from the Chicago Cubs
Notes: I’m going off scouting reports that suggest Morel will be viable in the outfield, taking his poor 2023 there as small sample size. The bat is good but I’d need to believe he’s going to be a 125-130 wRC+ guy to make this deal.

Evan Carter or Wyatt Langford from Texas
Notes: Hard to imagine the Rangers trading either a top 10 MLB prospect or a World Series hero for Clase. But, that’s fine with me, we’ll keep Clase. If the Rangers want him back, it’ll cost them.

Luis Robert (in a 3 team deal) from the Chicago White Sox
Notes: If there is a way for a contending team to send a huge prospect haul to the White Sox while accepting Clase and maybe additional pieces from the Guardians, Robert coming to Cleveland would be the ideal return. I don’t see the White Sox trading Robert but I especially don’t see a scenario in which they’d allow him to end up in Cleveland.

Fernando Tatis Jr from San Diego
Notes: Hard for me to imagine the Guardians taking on Tatis Jr’s contract right now, but this is the kind of deal a franchise desperate to save cash and remain competitive just might be tempted by. Again, though, very, very unlikely for a host of reasons.

Kyle Tucker from Houston
Notes: I don’t see the Astros trading Tucker, but especially not for an elite closer when they already have the unhittable Ryan Pressly. However, after Tucker’s disappointing postseason and with some likely ability to swing a trade or another free agent signing to compensate, I wouldn’t rule this possibility out completely. I’m only 99% sure it won’t happen.

There are, of course, some insane prospect packages that would sway a smart front office. Deep farm systems like Baltimore’s, Seattle’s, Arizona’s, or maybe even the Yankees might be able to overwhelm with overall package value. For me, though, that wouldn’t be enough to move a pitcher who should not be at his peak yet. If you can’t get one of the above names, I’d just revisit the idea following 2023 if needed. My reasoning includes that the team should be competing as hard as possible in the open field for the 2024 AL Central title, should be giving star Jose Ramirez a real shot at a World Series run, and there is no reason to suspect that Clase’s value is going to tank after another season and plenty of reason to expect some level of rebound in value.

When speaking of Emmanuel Clase in a potential trade, it’s important to remember that he has Mariano Rivera ceiling but also the floor that comes with any bullpen arm. The Guardians have some exciting bullpen arms in the minors from Franco Aleman, Cade Smith, Andrew Walters and MAYBE in August a Daniel Espino coming back from injury. The Guardians have demonstrated that they can identify and develop an elite closer; they’ve yet to show they can do that with an all-star, slugging outfielder, so trading the former for the latter and betting on your development of pitchers makes some sense.

Obviously, none of these young arms, however, should make us feel comfortable losing a reliable 70 innings of ERA in the low 3’s and a 99 mph cutter sawing off bats with regularity. It will take a true hitting star for me to be ok with the idea of moving on from Clase and those players are very rarely offered in these kind of deals. If one is, however, this thought exercise might be an interesting hypothetical made reality for Guardians’ fans.